undefinedDeborah Eisenberg, ca. 2009. Photograph courtesy of the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation

Over the past three decades, Deborah Eisenberg has produced four short-story collections: Transactions in a Foreign Currency (1986), Under the 82nd Airborne (1992), All Around Atlantis (1997), and Twilight of the Superheroes (2006). She has also written a play, Pastorale (1982), a monograph on the artist Jennifer Bartlett (1994), and criticism, much of it for The New York Review of Books. Her preeminence as a short-story writer has been recognized by countless critics and a host of awards, including a DAAD residency, the American Academy of Arts and Letters Award for Literature, many O. Henry prizes, the pen/Faulkner Award for Fiction, a Lannan Literary Fellowship, and a MacArthur “genius grant.”

The adult narrator of Eisenberg’s story “All Around Atlantis” recalls, “Yes, I had nightmares—children do. After all, it takes some time to get used to being alive. And how else, except in the clarity of dreams, are you supposed to see the world all around you that’s hidden by the light of day?” Learning how to live is difficult work for Eisenberg’s characters. Her first three collections are largely populated by people whose efforts to piece together what things mean are hobbled; they are youths, travelers, immigrants, and people recovering from trauma—abuse, war, the death of a beloved. In her more recent stories, she also writes about outwardly settled people who, although they may live with spouses and own good china, lead provisional existences laden with perplexity. What mystifies her older characters is not so much how life works but that it is passing.

Our interview took place over three fiercely hot summer days, in the Chelsea apartment that Eisenberg shares with her partner, the writer and actor Wallace Shawn. She works in a small, light-swept garret, flanked by gorgeously planted terraces. On her writing table, next to her laptop, she keeps a little painting of a brick wall to remind her of the air-shaft view from a previous apartment.

Eisenberg speaks slowly, pausing often to find exactly the right words, and makes no effort to conceal her strong emotional responses, whether she is moved to laughter or tears. She is physically slight, but, dressed all in black, perched on a faded divan, and set off by the high, white walls of her living room, she has the arresting elegance of an eighteenth-century silhouette portrait.

 

INTERVIEWER

Am I right that your first story was published when you were almost forty?

DEBORAH EISENBERG

That would be about right. A story called “Flotsam” was the first to be published, though it was not the first to be written. The first story I wrote was called “Days,” and I have very little affection for it.

INTERVIEWER

Why?

EISENBERG

I find it ingratiating. That’s something one has to watch with first-person narrative, that special pleading for an “I” who is automatically in the right, or is even automatically lovable—whom the reader can snuggle up with and whose plight the reader can sniffle over. Because snuggling and sniffling can derail a more complex relationship between the reader and the material.

“Days” is also by far the most autobiographical piece of fiction I’ve ever written. I avoid using real people, including myself, in my fiction, but that piece started out as nonfiction—an account of going to the local YMCA and trying to run around the little track there as a way to endure the horrible ordeal of stopping smoking.

I had had no idea how deep the addiction went—it had essentially replaced me. I was a human being who had structured herself around the narcotic and the prop, who had melded with the narcotic and the prop. Once the narcotic and prop were no longer available, the human being simply died. I was left in a kind of mourning. I was grief stricken. I had murdered someone, and it was me. But as it turned out, that was the only way to allow a less restricted human being to take shape and live.

INTERVIEWER

In what way was your smoking self different?

EISENBERG

As a smoker, I was very brittle, very inelastic, rather reckless but not in any way adventurous. I could only sort of topple into one situation or another. I couldn’t breathe, I couldn’t move, I couldn’t change, but I was safe—in the sense of being preserved. It was like being embalmed, like being smoked, I suppose.

When I decided to stop smoking, I didn’t realize I would be dissolving the glue that held me together. But by the time you think you need to make a decision, that decision has already been made. The person I was leaving behind to die on the road was already half dead. Still, there wasn’t anybody ready to take the place of that dying person for quite some time.

INTERVIEWER

Did writing start to take the place of that dying person?

EISENBERG

I’m not sure writing started to take that place, but I wouldn’t have been able to write if I’d been smoking. I don’t think of writing as therapeutic, but I don’t know how I could have managed the despair if I hadn’t started to write then.

INTERVIEWER

Of course art-making isn’t therapy, but I often think artists don’t need to be quite so loath to admit some relationship between art-making and therapy.

EISENBERG

Well, I understand that reluctance. If you think you’re going to be late for a movie and you walk briskly to the theater, it might be good for you, but that’s not why you’re walking briskly. Writing does change you, and of course it feels good to do things, so you could say writing is de facto therapeutic. But really, one writes to write.

Of course, there are ancillary advantages to writing fiction. You get to leave your body, for instance, so you can have experiences that a person with your physical characteristics couldn’t actually have.

I find it endlessly interesting, endlessly funny, the fact that we’re rather arbitrarily divided up into these discrete humans and that your physical self, your physical attributes, your moment of history and the place where you were born determine who you are as much as all that indefinable stuff that’s inside of you. It seems so ridiculous. Why can’t I just buckle on my sword and leap on my horse and go charging through the forests?

But the real fun of writing, for me at least, is the experience of making a set of givens yield. There’s an incredibly inflexible set of instruments—our vocabulary, our grammar, the abstract symbols on paper, the limitations of your own powers of expression. You write something down and it’s awkward, trivial, artificial, approximate. But with effort you can get it to become a little flexible, a little transparent. You can get it to open up, and expose something lurking there beyond the clumsy thing you first put down. When you add a comma or add or subtract a word, and the thing reacts and changes, it’s so exciting that you forget how absolutely terrible writing feels a lot of the time.

INTERVIEWER

In “Days,” the narrator, as she withdraws from her addiction, discovers agency and causality. The experience of knowing what she wants and then doing something to make it happen is revelatory for her. It sounds like agency and causality are a part of the pleasure of writing for you.

EISENBERG

Until I stopped smoking, I was committed to inaction. So, yes, the pleasures of making something were new and intense for me when I started writing, and they remain intense.

INTERVIEWER

Many of your female characters are committed to passivity, attached to powerlessness. There’s even the little five-year-old in “Mermaids” who comforts herself by imagining her five-year-old male friend tying her up. What do you make of this phenomenon?

EISENBERG

Are women attached to powerlessness, either in reality or in my stories? I don’t know. But I do know that women haven’t chosen powerlessness for themselves. Powerlessness has been thrust upon them, by other people. In any case, passivity can be very powerful. It’s an efficient way of shifting responsibility—and blame—onto other people. And instead of having to do anything, you get to be angry all the time.

INTERVIEWER

What’s the pleasure in being angry? It’s the most miserable state.

EISENBERG

I’m a bit of an expert on anger, having suffered from it all through my youth, when I was both brunt and font. It’s certainly the most miserable state to be in but it’s also tremendously gratifying, really—rage feels justified. And it’s an excellent substitute for action. Why would you want to sacrifice rage to go about the long, difficult, dreary business of making something more tolerable?

INTERVIEWER

Why was inaction so important to you?

EISENBERG

I suppose it was partly personal and partly generational. I came to the sixties early—sometime in the fifties I would say, but you could hear the sixties approaching from afar. And I grew up in a milieu that very much valued accomplishment and credentials. The whole thing made me sick, and I didn’t want any part of it, so I cast those values from me. I was fastidious. I wouldn’t think of accomplishing a thing or having even one credential—a principled stance that happened to be incredibly convenient for someone paralyzed by terror and confusion.

INTERVIEWER

Your parents cared a great deal about accomplishment?

EISENBERG

Yes. I find that painfully touching, really heartbreaking, to think of now, though I rejected it fiercely then. My parents were the children of Jewish immigrants and ambitiously sought to educate themselves well, to lead an assimilated, middle-class life.

Several generations, really, are required to complete an arrival. My grandparents worked so hard to establish a solid footing in this country for themselves and their children, and my parents continued the endeavor. By the time I came around, I didn’t understand the problem at all, although I certainly felt repercussions of the difficulties. My parents were serious people who tried to live correctly, but they were so lacking in self-awareness as to be almost prodigies. I think maybe that’s not so unusual among the first generation to be born here. They work so hard to fulfill their parents’ hopes for them, to merit the sacrifices their parents made for them and the hardships they went through that they’re not allowed to know anything about themselves.

INTERVIEWER

Where did your family come from?

EISENBERG

My mother grew up in Chicago, and my father grew up in a little city called Waukegan, in northern Illinois, that’s famous for being the hometown of Jack Benny.

As far as I know, my mother’s father was from Belarus. My maternal grandmother purported to come from Saint Petersburg. Did she? I have no idea. I was also told that she came from Kronshtadt. Close enough, I suppose.

My father’s parents were probably from shtetels in Poland or Ukraine or Galicia. Of course, the borders were waving around so much back then you could be born in three places at once. The great cities of the Old World, like Saint Petersburg, Kraków, Vienna, Budapest, acquired a certain mythological function for that group of immigrants. The older my paternal grandmother got, my cousin Katherine tells me, the nearer to Vienna the place of her birth became, until she had been born in Vienna.

I remember once, when I was about five, asking my maternal grandfather, What was it like where you came from? And he said, It was cold. That was the end of the conversation. America was the beginning as far as many of those immigrants were concerned. What happened before that stayed in darkness.

There are certainly bits of my personality that I can’t quite account for by my own life history. You know, certain neurotic characteristics, fears. It’s a little like wondering why your hair is curly when no one else in your family has curly hair, and it turns out you were adopted.

Those of us who are the grandchildren of immigrants often have a void in our psyche that reflects a situation of danger or terror that our grandparents endured. The first generation born in the United States often tries to erase or suppress what they know of their parents’ experience in order to provide a level playing field for their children, but in fact experience and fears can be transmitted in various forms across many generations. Many of us grew up knowing nothing, or next to nothing, about the horrors our grandparents lived through, and when we search for the source of certain anxieties, all we can locate is a kind of blank inscrutability.

INTERVIEWER

You write about that blank inscrutability in “All Around Atlantis,” one of a handful of your stories about the Hungarian diaspora. What’s your interest in Hungarians?

EISENBERG

For some reason, I fill that inscrutable blankness my forebears left with Budapest. It’s a repository for many of my fantasies—superb musicians and writers, splendid cafés, voluptuous pastries.

Among Jewish immigrants to America, there was, at a certain period, a hierarchy of nationalities. My forebears, wherever they were from, were at the bottom of that pile, and the Hungarian Jews were at the apex of that pile.

INTERVIEWER

How did your grandparents establish themselves?

EISENBERG

They did what so many others did. Back then, there was so much more economic mobility and less hostility—or less institutionalized hostility— toward immigrants. My father’s father started out as a peddler, and then he had a store that sold all kinds of things. He did very well at it, and he was clever about investments and made a lot of money. He died quite young, just at the onset of the Great Depression, and the money was lost. My mother’s parents always lived humbly, but they managed. That grandfather was an extremely talented tailor.

INTERVIEWER

Was your mother educated?

EISENBERG

She got herself educated. She was at the top of her class at a good high school in Chicago. Her older brother—and this was the cause of lifelong bitterness on her part—was sent to college, but she was a girl, and her parents said, Please, how could we afford this? But she went through the University of Chicago on scholarship and graduated Phi Beta Kappa. She was very proud of that. She was, on the one hand, very adventurous, intellectually, and on the other hand, very fearful—she’d always defer to the academic view, to the view of “the authority.”

INTERVIEWER

What was she was afraid of?

EISENBERG

I have no idea. But I was the pure expression of her fears.

INTERVIEWER

Do you think she would have been afraid of any daughter? Or were there particular things about you that scared her?

EISENBERG

Both. There she was, trying—with not exactly all of her heart but with a large portion of it—to exemplify acceptability to the world she wanted to be a part of, and there I was, conspicuously the incarnation of her secret strangenesses and unacceptabilities.

From the get-go, I was a catastrophe. When I was two, before I could really talk, I was sent to a Viennese psychiatrist. In Chicago, I mean—not in Vienna. But she really was Viennese. At home, I would grab the phone and yell, Ja? just the way Dr. Emmy did.

INTERVIEWER

What did you do to require a psychiatrist?

EISENBERG

I was a juvenile delinquent, I guess. But it was a very lucky thing, actually, because the psychiatrist instructed my parents to send me to a wonderful day school on a little farm. It was run by two lesbian communists, and to this day I just light up with joy when I meet a lesbian communist. The school closed when I was eight, but it gave me a basis, a model of something that still emits faint little beeps of wholesome happiness inside me. It certainly freed me to a great extent from my incredible dependency on my dragon mother.

INTERVIEWER

What was your father like?

EISENBERG

He was a saintly pediatrician, very self-sacrificing, and of course he worked horrifying hours. And my poor mother was dealing with ravaging, chronic back pain. It’s awful to live with that and it’s terrible for the disposition. There was an atmosphere of anguish, despair, and melancholy in the house. It was alleviated a lot when my brother was around—we were all so happy to see him—but he’s older and was away sooner. It’s very hard to shake off that atmosphere sometimes, even now.

I have such a great life. I really do. But I always wonder, if I had to live my first twenty-five years over again, would I do it, even if I knew that I would go on to so wonderful a life?

INTERVIEWER

You were twenty-six when you met Wally?

EISENBERG

That’s right. The Wallace with whom I still live.

INTERVIEWER

Meeting him was a gigantic turning point?

EISENBERG

You know, if you woke me up in the middle of the night and asked me, Can another person make someone happy? I’m sure I would shout, No! What a preposterous idea! But my actual life is evidence to the contrary.

That is, happiness isn’t like a lollipop that somebody can hand you, but reciprocity can create a lot of space—a sort of playground. Among other things, I very much doubt that I would have had the courage to begin writing if it hadn’t been for Wally, who strongly believed that people, including me, should do some work that gives them pleasure, if they have that opportunity.

INTERVIEWER

The impulse to do something as difficult as sit down and write couldn’t possibly come from someone else entirely. What do you think it was, in your thirties, that equipped you to want to labor at making a sentence?

EISENBERG

Maybe every strange, alienated kid is presumed to write, because people had always said to me, Do you write? And up until I was about fifteen, reading was my great pleasure, and I read a lot. When I was fourteen or fifteen, I always carried a talismanic copy of Nightwood or Against Nature with me to ward off evil. I’m no longer sure exactly what those books represented to me, but they were very portable. When I was in high school, all my friends said they were going to be writers. And I thought, How come you get to be a writer, and I don’t? I thought WRITER was written on their foreheads and they saw it when they looked in the mirror, and I sure didn’t see it when I looked in the mirror.

I always thought of writing as holy. I still do. It’s not something to be approached casually.

INTERVIEWER

In the decades when you weren’t writing, what were you doing—besides smoking cigarettes?

EISENBERG

I went to a small college in Vermont called Marlboro. I was a terrible student. Toward the end of my second year, I left. With a guy. And we led a life that could be led in the sixties—going here and there, not getting hysterical about making a living, putting this or that in one’s mouth and seeing what would happen. You know, the life of the mind, sort of.

Eventually he went to Canada to stay out of Vietnam, and I fetched up—and this was a great stroke of luck—at the New School for Social Research. My mother sent me an ad she’d clipped out of a newspaper, and she said, Anybody can get into this school, and I think you better go to it.

My terror of not having a college degree outweighed my terror of finishing college. It was unthinkable not to—one of those prospects, like getting pregnant, that meant you would just slide off the face of the earth. My parents would pay for school, and I didn’t know what else to do. I felt that I’d really come to the end of the line in some way, and frankly, I was quite a wreck.

There was a new program at the New School that offered the second two years of undergraduate study. And they said, Do you want to study the humanities or the social sciences? And I thought, I know what humanities is—it’s reading a book. I know how to read a book, so I’ll do this other thing.

INTERVIEWER

What was your response to political philosophy?

EISENBERG

It was all kinds of social thought—political theory, economics, some psychology, a little philosophy of history, and so on. When I started, I realized that my classmates had read all of Marx, all of Freud, the neo-Marxists. They knew the Frankfurt School theorists, they had a grasp of history. I knew nothing. There was a whole, large vocabulary involved, a conceptual vocabulary that was completely alien to me. I couldn’t comprehend a thing that was said, and my solution to this problem was to stay in bed.

Maybe it was true that anybody could get into that program, but it wasn’t so easy to get out! There were two things that were required in order to pass the first year, and one of them was a paper for a certain class. Everybody else chose their subjects early and had written their papers. I showed up to the second-to-last class, and the professor said, Fortunately, there’s one paper topic left, which nobody else wanted. So it’s yours.

It was on some essays by Theodor Adorno concerning the relationship between sociology and psychology. So I went home with them, and I didn’t know whether the book was right side up or upside down. I read those essays more than a thousand times without understanding a word. Then I read them once more, and I understood everything in the whole world.

We also had to take a comprehensive exam at the end of the first year. You had two weeks to pass it, and you had the year’s syllabus. Everybody else had been in classes all year, but I had these two weeks. I’ve always been a very slow reader, but the urgency was great. That exam was one of the best and most exciting things that had happened to me in my whole life. It gave me a kind of foundation.

INTERVIEWER

Foundation for apprehending the world?

EISENBERG

Yes. It was a great school. Hannah Arendt and Hans Morgenthau and Robert Heilbroner and other remarkable people were attached to the graduate faculty then, and undergrads could go to their lectures. I sometimes went, and it was thrilling just to see people who could use their brains like that.

I’d been more or less in a fog my whole life, and here were people for whom it was all in a day’s work to identify phenomena, scrutinize them, and apply processes of ratiocination. Not that I sat around reading, say, Heidegger from there on out, but when the time came for me to look at the world, I was a little prepared to do it. I also had some idea of what it meant to learn and how you could go about it.

INTERVIEWER

When you finished school and were living in New York, what was the city like?

EISENBERG

It was scrappy. I loved it. But I was very lonely, and I was very confused, and I didn’t know what was going to happen to me. I wasn’t equipped to do much of anything, and I was too fearful to go out and mix it up in the world, too self-conscious. I didn’t think I could do anything. I didn’t think I could get a waitressing job—I might as well have been trying to get hired as the head neurosurgeon at Columbia Presbyterian.

INTERVIEWER

Did you manage to get a waitressing job?

EISENBERG

Eventually. Eventually I did this and that, and at a certain point I got together with Wally.

Our first—I guess you’d call it a date—devolved into a passionate argument about Mao. Wally had studied Far Eastern history and was very skeptical about Mao’s policies. I knew nothing whatsoever about the question, but I was appalled that someone would so confidently dismiss something that might benefit millions of people. It’s funny to think of now, partly because it becomes more and more obvious to me how little people—even people who are supposedly great experts—know about anything. I was completely unaware that we were actually arguing about some abstractions that we were calling “China.”

INTERVIEWER

Presumably, your politics have evolved together throughout the years.